Being lesbian parents is an interesting journey. We weave our way between the tried and true path of most parents’ experience and the pioneering path, where the territory is not as well mapped, of being both the biological and non-biological mother to our children.
The similarities between us and our heterosexual counterparts are virtually self-explanatory – sleep deprivation, wonderment at how perfect an infant is, excitement at each developmental stage; frustration and distress at not being able to ease a painful cry; terror of loss when illness or accident strikes; power struggles with headstrong toddlers; the tender moments of holding your child close and absorbing them into every cell of your being; the first “I love you” from their lips – the list goes on. The testimony of most parents that no job on earth is both so difficult and rewarding simultaneously resonates for us. How can one feel so exhausted and stretched and yet manage to say authentically “I wouldn’t change it for the world”. Sexual orientation slips quietly off the page in the face of such a compelling identity as parenting.
Differences from Heterosexual Families
However there are places where we experience difference from heterosexual families. In our case we are firmly embedded in a supportive, tolerant neighbourhood where our children are valued and respected. At this level we know we are privileged. Many lesbian and gay families in the world don’t have this experience and are faced with overt homophobia making their job as parents much harder.
Many of the differences would not be obvious to families around us. Although we have confronted the more insidious aspects of our own homophobia, it creeps in unexpectedly. Our son and I have fair skin and curly hair. My partner and our daughter have dark wavy hair and olive complexion. We are fortunate to have our children looking so much like us given that we both used unknown donors through a fertility clinic. Nevertheless when we are out with our non-biological child there are inevitable questions to field. A person at a bus stop enquiring, “Where did she get her beautiful olive skin?” “Where did he get those curls?” We can get around it by saying something neutral, like, “Yes, she’s the spitting image of my partner”. However, there is the immediate moment of hyper awareness – Will they ask more questions? Will this lead us to a place where I disclose I’m a lesbian? Will my children experience discrimination as a result of their response? A situation which the majority of parents might experience as social chit-chat becomes a place where I may have to protect my child.
I hate that I have this response internally but I also know that not everyone is accepting of gay and lesbian lifestyles, particularly when it comes to children. I wish I could say with a laugh “She’s the spitting image of her other Mum” and it be just normal conversation. Sometimes I do reply this way and internally brace myself for any consequences. I wish in the broader world there was no distinction. For our children, particularly as they get older, they will have to deal with questions and negativity. We would like to think that our children will be resilient and secure enough to handle this as children have to deal with teasing about all kinds of things. Kids find their way.
The lighter side of lesbian parenting
There is also the lighter side to our different family form. One little boy asked Samara, “Why don’t you have a Dad?” She answered “Because I have two Mums!” He nodded as if that explained everything and they went on playing together. When she was four she had a friend from Kindy to play. Her Mum told us with delight the next day that her daughter felt it wasn’t fair – Samara had two Mummies and she only had one. Her Daddy had to spend the evening playing Barbies to prove he was as good as another Mummy!
We recognise that as our children grow they may have some struggles about not having a Dad. They do however have caring, nurturing men in their lives and we trust that most importantly they have two loving, committed parents. I asked Samara who is eight years old, whether she minded not having a Dad. She said she was looking forward to Father’s Day at school, since on Mother’s Day she had to make two of everything. She thought about this and said “Yeah, You know Nick at school; well he’s got two Dads so because I don’t have one the teachers will probably make me sit next to him and help!” Hmmm- no big trauma yet!
Then there are the experiences that are hard to find humour in. I remember when our daughter was a little baby, a conservative government was still in power in Queensland. We were subject to the vile rhetoric of politicians who were debating single women and lesbians access to fertility clinics. I can’t tell you how vulnerable I felt holding my precious baby whilst hearing people on talkback shows and politicians saying that lesbians had no right to have children and that our children were at risk (flying tediously in the face of decades of research to the contrary, but of course people believe what they want to believe).
These comments diminished my humanity by stereotyping me, my partner and friends in a way that bore no resemblance to my experience of our family. I just wanted to hide. However I felt fiercely protective of our daughter and a deep desire to keep her safe from the ignorance and hatred. Now as it turns out, we’ve been able to protect them. We all know however, the appalling history of human rights in the world. In the deepest part of me I knew we were not so far from becoming a place where children are ripped from their parents by virtue of colour or creed and families are massacred because they are seen as less than human. Sounds dramatic – maybe. But that’s where my feelings went even though I didn’t have to live out that horror. On the face of it our politics may be more polite than in some countries but the reality is that people like John Howard, actively fight to ensure our relationships are not legally recognised.
I remember when Samara was born going through a few months of feeling weepy and vulnerable regarding my non- status as a legal parent. Again the feelings I had weren’t a reflection of doubt in my relationship. Rather a deep empathy with all other lesbian and gay non- biological parents who can so easily have their children taken away from them. Even now, if my partner wanted to return to her country of birth with our daughter, I would have no legal entitlement to challenge this. This potentially puts enormous pressure on gay relationships. You simply have to trust the good will of your partner. This is because our relationships are not given the legal sanction of de-facto status or marriage. Therefore in the eyes of the law our non-biological child is not considered a relative. Gradually there are a few landmark cases of lesbians winning access to their non-biological children at great financial and psychological expense. This is something we have to fight for.. If a man has a genetic connection to a child he may never have seen for years since birth, he is still entitled to access.
As long as there is no proven abuse the law starts with a heterosexual parent’s mutual entitlement to have a connection with their children. There are many distressing stories about non-biological parents losing connection to their children, not only through vitriolic separations but also if a partner dies and the biological family do not approve of the lesbian relationship. This means grandparents, aunts, uncles, have a greater claim in law to the child than the person who has raised them. I don’t dwell on this as our family relationships have developed over years and it is not a real threat for us. However, I know many families who are not in such a fortunate position. I remember telling a story at a Playback Theatre show about being a lesbian parent and a woman coming up to talk to me later. She wept as she told me how her two year old daughter had been taken away by the biological mother and grandmother when her relationship had broken down. She was not in a financial position to fight legally and still seemed shell shocked. I remember her saying, “I was at her birth, I read to her every night. I can’t believe she’s gone”.
Differences between being a biological and non-biological roles
A question some people have had the courage to ask is – Do you feel differently towards your biological and non-biological child? This is a complex question and I wouldn’t presume to answer for other lesbians or gays in our situation. For me however, the easiest answer is no. From the time my daughter entered the world I experienced a fierce and tender love that surpasses all other love – a profound knowledge that I would die to save this little person. I can also say this unequivocally about my son. Therefore I can’t imagine that I would feel differently about either of them if our biological connections were reversed. However there are differences and it is not always easy to pinpoint what is biological and what is temperament, gender, birth order or different experiences.. Because both of us breastfed our children, this, accompanied by the fact that this child came from your body, creates a symbiotic attachment that we found was more influential in the first few years. This was especially evident when the child was sick or tired. However, other factors influence this. For instance our daughter would rarely go to sleep on the breast. Therefore when she had finished feeding I would jump at the chance to settle her to sleep and have that close connection. This pattern worked well with me being able to settle her more easily.
When our son came along he nearly always fell asleep on the breast and therefore my partner didn’t get this same opportunity. His temperament was also very different – he took a lot longer to warm up to people than our daughter who was very social at a young age. Jesse took longer to stop breastfeeding, was more likely to cry if taken away from me and also had a major operation at six months which probably increased the need for the symbiotic connection. My partner who adored the whole process of breastfeeding and the deep physical connection with a small baby found the first year much more difficult. However as he has grown the bonding that was still taking place in that early time is obvious and they have a very close loving relationship.
We are in a unique position from which to view the social system of the family and many of our experiences have led us to believe that a lot of what men and women experience in raising children is as much about roles as gender differences. Both of us have developed a lot more compassion for Dads especially in the first year when the other mother (and Dads) often takes on a more functional, task focused role to balance the nurturing, breastfeeding role. Although we are equal in the child raising and homemaking tasks, in that first year we have also gained a perspective of how Dads may feel excluded from the sacred bond between birth mother and child. We were able to work through these issues quite effectively but it is murky and emotional territory. It levels out as the children get older and I really enjoy the differences in the way our children connect with each of us. I believe they are more influenced by different strengths and skills in each parent than anything to do with biology.
Discovering our children are “normal”
My hope is that when our children are adults it will simply be a matter of choice as to whom they partner with. Not a struggle to find acceptance in a culture that can easily make us invisible, conveying messages of shame and disrespect. I know we will support that choice but they will have to run a gauntlet to come to acceptance themselves. There are still research articles being published that “prove” children growing up in lesbian and gay households are normal, well balanced individuals and that they are no more likely to identify as homosexual that children from heterosexual families. Why this continues to be such a fear is beyond me. It makes me smile however, that many of these articles find a higher level of functioning in children from gay homes. It is not hard for me to be proud of our family. It is scary for me to think that our children might suffer discrimination as a result of our choices but they won’t be the first or last to do so. I’d like to live in a world where my partner and I can walk hand in hand through the shopping centre (just like heterosexual parents might do) with our children skipping along beside us and have no fear that people will look at us oddly or call us names or snigger. I will still do this for my children, because too hide is to tell them there is something bad. I only have to look at them to know that there is only good.
Rainbow Families – A Social group for lesbian and gay families. We are a Brisbane based group who meet once a month for fun and support. Our children are growing up together in an affirming environment where they get to know lots of other kids with two Mums and two Dads. All welcome. For more information contact Helen Sheehy on firstname.lastname@example.org